None of us like experiencing pain and most people have a deep desire to find answers to permanently stop it. But life keeps mentally and physically coming at all of us and this is not a realistic wish. So why even try?
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” The origin of this common saying is unclear and it has been interpreted in many different ways. However, it is at the core of dealing with chronic pain. Acute intermittent pain is unavoidable and is actually necessary for survival. However, there is nothing useful about suffering from chronic pain. The impact on peoples’ lives is devastating.
Most of the problems perpetuating chronic pain arise from the secondary anger and frustration around having to deal with adversity of any kind. This is the suffering. But you do have a choice about this aspect of pain. What is your response to adversity-mental or physical? If you choose to rail about the injustices of life, you will dive even deeper into the Abyss. It stimulates your immune system and inflammation. What you do have a choice about is learning methods and approaches to consistently process adversity that lessen your body’s neurochemical reaction to it. It is clear conscious decision to choose a different life.
Any of you suffering from chronic pain know that it is relentless with by occasional periods of improvement. But in the big picture, it affects almost every aspect of your life. Completely avoiding pain is not possible but breaking free from the grip it has on you is possible. Part of this effort includes understanding that you will continually “fail” and have relapses. That will never stop. But as you improve your awareness and skills how to process life’s challenges, you will be triggered less often and learn to get back on your feet more quickly. If your expectation is never being in pain, then the frustration of “going back into the abyss” fires up your nervous system, metabolism, inflammatory reaction, you will experience more pain, and dive deeper into the hole.
Good news or bad news?
Patients frequently came into my office excited about an early improvement in their pain. Some patients even felt freedom from pain within weeks, after suffering years of misery. The pure positive energy emanating from them was palpable and inspiring.
I was always inspired by their stories, but some of my first words were, “I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you are going to experience more pain again and maybe as severe as it was. These pain circuits are permanent. But don’t despair!” My observation is that once your brain has been re-exposed to this state of being, you can always find your way back to it. The key is that with practice using your set of tools, you’ll become more skillful in pulling yourself back out of your pain state. You’ll dive into The Abyss less often and remain in for shorter periods of time. In the big picture, pain will assume a more normal role in your life and no longer be the center of it. What is paradoxical is that by understanding the inevitability of pain, you will experience less of it.
Many of us hold on to the idea that we can create a world for ourselves that has minimal pain and suffering. When adversity hits, we become upset because we feel it is unfair and shouldn’t be happening. So, one of the ways we attempt to deal with adversity is to control and limit our stress. It is a viable strategy and it makes more sense than seeking out or creating problems. However, the result is that your world will become progressively smaller over time. You cannot control most of your stressors, and you certainly can’t outrun your mind. Paradoxically, your stress will increase as you try to avoid it.
It is more rational to accept that what we term adversity is simply – life. We will all die and most of us will experience major illnesses. We will all have close family members that will suffer from pain, too. There are infinite number of wrongs, small and large, that happen to us personally, as well as on a global scale. So why would you be an exception?
Firing up Your Nervous System
The problem from a physiological perspective is that when we become frustrated, our nervous system fires up even more stress hormones, which magnifies the physical responses. These symptoms may include insomnia, obsessive thought patterns, body image issues, ringing in the ears, back pain, neck pain, irritable bowel syndrome, burning sensations throughout your body, along with over 30 other symptoms.
To be successful in any endeavor requires taking risks and dealing with the accompanying anxiety. If you are not willing to deal with those feelings, then it is probably not worth taking the risk. There’s a reason we say, “If you can’t take the heat then get out of the kitchen.”
When you “fail,” you are welcome to take some time to wallow in your feelings. It is critical not to suppress negative thoughts and emotions, but is also important to recognize what you are doing to yourself. At some point, you have to forgive yourself, get back up, and move on. A more helpful saying is, “It doesn’t matter how many times you fall; it is the number of times you get up.”
When a bamboo grove is buffeted by a storm with high winds, the grove bends and then stands back up when it is calm.
It is not helpful for you to fight a sustained battle against overwhelming circumstances. When you are down, you are down. It’s important to be okay with it, rather than being self-critical for being triggered when you know better. No one is asking you to be happy when your situation is unpleasant. But you also do not have to keep beating yourself up.
The essence of the DOC (Direct Your Own Care) Journey is ongoing connection with your immediate surroundings regardless of whether they are pleasant or not. Ongoing awareness of your self-judgement of “failing” is an important step. Then you can use your tools to get back up more quickly.
Life is challenging and keeps coming at us. Take it in, let go and live.